Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo was a Nigerian nationalist, political leader, writer and a principal participant in the country’s struggle for independence. Obafemi Awolowo (commonly known as Awo and often referred to as ‘the sage’) was one of modern Nigeria's founding fathers. He is of one three National Heroes of the Nigerian nation (along with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Nnamdi Azikiwe).
Early Life and Education
Awolowo was born in the town of Ikenné, Western State (present day Ogun State), on March 6, 1909. His first name, Obafemi, means 'The king loves me' and his surname means 'The mystic, or mysticism, commands honour or respect'. His father was a farmer and sawyer who died when Obafemi was only seven years old. He received his early education at the mission schools of Ikenne, Abeokuta (also in Ogun State) and Ibadan (the capital of Oyo State) and became a teacher in Abeokuta, later qualifying as a shorthand typist. He subsequently served as a clerk at the famous Wesley College in Ibadan and as a correspondent for the Nigerian Times. He often worked at odd jobs to raise money for tuition fees and his entrepreneurial spirit continued to express itself in the various careers which he subsequently sampled, including working as a clerk, moneylender, taxi driver and produce broker.
Despite his interest in business ventures, Awolowo wanted to continue his formal education. In 1944 he completed aUniversity of London correspondence course for a Bachelor of Commerce degree. His greatest ambition, however, was to study law, which he did in London from 1944 to 1946, after which he was called to the bar. Returning to Nigeria in 1947, he developed a thriving practice as a barrister in Ibadan.
He married Hannah Idowu Dideolu in 1937. They had two sons and three daughters.
Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s organisational and political inclinations can be traced to his involvement in various unions, including the Nigerian Motor Transport Union, the Nigerian Produce Traders' Association and the Trades Union Congress of Nigeria. He organised most of these trade unions in his spare time while continuing to run his law firm. He was appointed secretary of the Nigerian Motor Transport Union and Western Provincial Secretary of the Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM). By the early 1940s, he was active in the NYM, becoming the organisation’s Ibadan branch’s secretary in 1940. In 1942, he led a bout of civil disobedience that resulted in the reform of the Ibadan Native Authority Advisory Board. In 1944, he organised a mass protest against the ban on exporting palm kernel. It was this grassroots-level activism that did much to convince ordinary people that they could take on the British and win. Awolowo believed that the colonial system could be challenged in Africa as it had been in India, whose independence struggle inspired his civil disobedience tactics.
During his stay in London, Awolowo moved to a position of prominence in the struggle for Nigerian independence. He founded the Action Group political party political party in 1951 and became its first president. The Action Group's platform called for the immediate termination of British rule in Nigeria and for the development of various public welfare programs including universal primary education, an increase of health services in rural areas, the diversification of the Western Regional economy and the democratization of local governments. He won the first Western Region elections in 1951 and was chosen to be Minister for Local Government Structure, a role in which he established elective councils. In 1954 he became the first premier of the Western Region, an achievement for which he was awarded an honorary chieftaincy. During his tenure as leader and premier, he held the regional ministerial portfolios of local government, finance and economic planning. He was also the chairman of the Regional Economic Planning Commission.
From 1954 to 1959 as Premier of the Western Region, Awolowo worked to improve education, social services and agricultural practices. He also tried to build the Action Group into an effective nationwide party by making alliances with ethnic groups in other regions.
However, the 1959 elections were to be an important turning point in Awolowo's career: after his resignation from the post of premier to run for a seat in the Federal House of Representatives, the Action Group was decisively defeated and Awolowo found himself the leader of the opposition in the Federal House of Representatives while the deputy leader of the Action Group, Chief SL Akintola, remained premier of the Western Region. This situation led to a power struggle within the party which ultimately erupted in 1962 in disturbances in the Western Region House of Assembly. The federal government intervened and suspended the regional constitution.
In 1963 Awolowo was found guilty of conspiring to overthrow the government of Nigeria and was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. However in 1966, a coup d'etat led to the suspension of Nigeria’s federal constitution and the empowerment of a military government. The coup led to Awolowo’s release in July 1966 and as a result of the confused events of the next year and after some indecision, he eventually threw his support behind the federal government against the south-eastern secessionist state of Biafra.
He was appointed the Federal Commissioner of Finance and Vice-President of the Federal Executive Council by Yakubu Gowon's military administration during the Civil War. In the mid-1970s he was the chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), which was the brainchild of the Action Group. He was also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.
When the twelve-year ban on political activity was lifted in 1978 in preparation for a return to civilian rule, Awolowo emerged as the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). He ran for president in the elections of 1979 and 1983 but was defeated both times by Shehu Shagari. As a result of another military coup at the end of 1983, political parties were once again banned and Chief Awolowo retired from politics.
Free Universal Primary Health and Education
Obafemi Awolowo introduced free healthcare for children up to the age of 18 in the Western Region as well as free and mandatory primary education in Western Nigeria. Although Awolowo failed to win the 1979 and 1983 presidential elections (the results of which were questionable), his policies of free healthcare and education were rolled out in all of the states controlled by his party, UPN.
In 1945, Chief Obafemi Awolowo wrote his first book, Path to Nigerian Freedom, in which he was highly critical of the British policy of indirect administration and called for rapid moves toward self-government and the Africanisation of administrative posts in Nigeria. He also expressed his belief that federalism was the form of government best suited to the diverse populations of Nigeria in the book, a position to which he consistently adhered. He also founded the Trade Unions Congress of Nigeria. In 1945 in London, he helped found the Egbe Omo Oduduwa (Society of the Descendants of Oduduwa, the mythical ancestor of the Yoruba), an organisation devoted to the study and preservation of Yoruba culture.
In 1949, Awolowo founded the Nigerian Tribune, the oldest surviving private Nigerian newspaper, which he used to spread nationalist consciousness among his fellow citizens. His second book, Awo: An Autobiography of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in which he once more endorsed federalism as the most appropriate form of government for Nigeria, was published in 1960. In it, he also outlined the successful history of the Action Group and was optimistic with regards to Nigerian independence. While in prison, Awolowo wrote Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution (1966), in which he argued for the retention of a federal form of government composed of eighteen states.
In 1968, Awolowo published his fourth book, The People's Republic, calling for federalism, democracy and socialism as necessary elements for a new constitution which would lead to the development of a stable and prosperous Nigeria. Although he praised the military government for creating a twelve-state federal system in 1967, he predicted further political difficulties because these states had not been based on ethnic and linguistic affinities.
Awolowo continued to serve the government as Commissioner of Finance and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council throughout the civil war years (1967-1970). In his 1970 book The Strategy and Tactics of the People’s Republic of Nigeria, he hinted at a position which he would state more firmly in subsequent years: that the government's post-war spending should be devoted to development rather than to the military.
Awolowo’s other publications include Anglo-Nigerian Military Pact Agreement (1960), Philosophy of Independent Nigeria(1961), Blueprint for Post-war Reconstruction (1967), The Path to Economic Freedom in Developing Countries (1968),Problems of Africa (1977), Awo on the Nigeria Civil War (1982), Adventures in Power (1985), and selected speeches such as 'Voice of Reason,' 'Voice of Courage' and 'Voice of Wisdom' (all published in 1981).
Awolowo is remembered for his remarkable integrity, ardent nationalism, principled opposition and federalistic convictions. His party was the first to move the motion for Nigeria's independence in the federal parliament and he obtained internal self-government for the Western Region in 1957. He is credited with coining the name 'naira' for the Nigerian standard monetary unit (formerly known as the Nigerian pound) as the Federal Commissioner of Finance under the military government of General Yakubu Gowon. And though often ignored, Obafemi Awolowo was also General Yakubu Gowon’s de facto vice president when he was Vice President of the Supreme Federal Executive Council under Gowon. Awolowo helped to finance the civil war and preserve the federation without borrowing. He built the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan (the first of its kind in Africa with a seating capacity of 35,000) which was later renamed after him by President Jonathan Ebele Goodluck thirty years after his death; established Western Nigerian Television (WNTV), the first television station in Africa, on October 1, 1959; erected the Cocoa House, the first skyscraper in tropical Africa (which is still the tallest building in Ibadan) and ran a widely-respected civil service authority in the Western Region.
Many of Awolowo’s disciples in Nigeria’s south-west have continued to invoke his name and the policies of the Action Group during campaigns and his welfarist policies have influenced politicians in most of the other geopolitical zones of the nation. He held many chieftaincy titles including the Losi of Ikenne, Lisa of Ijeun, Asiwaju of Remo, Odofin of Owo, Ajagunla of Ado-Ekiti, Apesin of Osogbo, Odole of Ife and Obong Ikpa Isong of Ibibioland. He was also awarded the highest Nigerian national honour: Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). Many institutions in Nigeria have honoured him and some regional and national institutions and roads are named after him. His portrait is also on the â‚¦100 note.
However, his most important bequests (often styled as Awoisms) are his exemplary integrity, his promotion of the welfare of ordinary Nigerians, his contributions to hastening the process of decolonisation and his consistent and reasoned advocacy of federalism based on ethno-linguistic self-determination and politically strong states as the best basis for Nigerian unity.
Awolowo died at his Ikenne home, the Efunyela Hall (named after his mother) on May 9, 1987 at the age of 78.
- New World Encyclopedia
- Britannica Online Encyclopedia
- Chat Afrik
- State House, Abuja website
Picture source: PM News